How does the power of “suggestion” influence students’ performance?

How to cite: M. Jagadesh Kumar, “How does the power of “Suggestion” influence students’ performance?”,IETE Technical Review, Vol.30 (4), pp.273-275, July-August 2013.

As a professor in an institute of higher education, I believe that my primary role is to be a partner with my students to enhance their cognitive skills by creating an interactive teaching-learning atmosphere in the class room. When the students enter my class, they are already equipped with the lower order cognitive skills such as simple recall of facts or the ability to apply known theories to familiar situations. What they need to master are the higher order cognitive skills – ability to question, analyze and synthesize, problem solving capabilities and critical evaluative thinking including the application of known knowledge to unfamiliar situations [1,2].  While there are time tested techniques to improve these skills, we appear to have not paid any attention to the subtle  and potent technique of “suggestion” in the classroom.

 But what is a “suggestion”?  How can suggestions to the students in the classroom influence their academic goals and change the outcome of their learning experience? Let me first give you some thought-provoking real life understandings of the power of “suggestion”.

 In an experiment, three independent groups of people were asked to find an inverted ‘T’ buried in distractions [3,4]. Each group was asked to sniff a scented pad before starting their task. The first group was told that sniffing the scented cotton pad would improve their ability to recognize the inverted ‘T’. The second group was told that sniffing would hurt their performance in recognizing the inverted ‘T’.  The third group was told that sniffing would have no effect on their performance. Surprisingly, the outcome was exactly similar to the “suggestions”. The first group found the inverted ‘T’ quickly compared to the second group which took a longer time. Perhaps it is the expectation of improved performance from the first group which led to this outcome. Such behavioral changes influenced by suggestions are called “response expectancies”. This experiment demonstrates that suggestions can, therefore, affect implicit learning abilities either in a useful or a detrimental manner.

 Suggestions can also lead people to increase cognitive effort and increase memory performance.  To accomplish different day-to-day activities, we often depend on our prospective memory – “the ability to remember to perform a future action” [3]. Prospective memory tasks range from simple actions such as remembering to take a chalk to your classroom to important tasks such as ending your lecture on time. Let us examine another experiment where a group of people were given a sham drug and were told that it would improve their memory performance and the second group was also given the same sham drug but was not told about its effect [5]. Interestingly, when they were asked to do some high intensity prospective memory tasks, the first group performed better than the second group. The mechanism of suggestion, tacitly employed in this case, did the trick in improving the performance of the first group.

 How we respond to a medicine could be influenced by suggestions too [3]. Patients who were given a muscle relaxant drug felt relaxed since they were told about it a priori. A different set of patients who were administered the same drug got tensed when they were told that the drug was a stimulant [6]. In another situation, athletes ran faster when they were told that the drug they took would enhance their performance while in reality it was a fake drug [7].

 There is reasonable research evidence now to show that “expectancies can directly alter our subjective experience of internal states” [3]. As a result, we also modify our behavior to produce a particular outcome when we anticipate it. This is called Response Expectancy Theory [8,9].  What these studies tell us that while we may like to believe that “our thoughts and our behaviors are rationally constructed”, the research shows otherwise. Our thoughts and our behaviors are indeed influenced by all kinds of information — including the tacit suggestion and expectation [3].

  As teaching professionals, it is worthwhile for us to stop and take a look at these findings so that they are given the importance they deserve. Can we do something differently in the classroom to see that our “suggestions”, either planned or unplanned, will lead to “response expectancies” which will moderate the teaching-learning outcomes of our students?

 Our body language and the way we interact with our students in the classroom can often convey either unintentional or intentional suggestions to the students. When pedagogical approaches are changing and divergence among students’ background in a classroom is on an increase, as professors, we are likely to treat such situations as alien and refuse to adapt to the new reality.  We do not like the prospect of ‘letting go of earlier, comfortable positions and encountering less familiar and sometimes disconcerting new territory’ [10]. We have a propensity to stereotype students by complaining that their underperformance is either because they are not smart enough or they are not spending enough time in their academic pursuits. It is not uncommon to attribute the bad performance of students to their lack of interest in the subject instead of scrutinizing our own approach to teaching. In large classes, teaching often turns into professor centric, transforming the classroom into a place where the students are treated as subordinates with no freedom to express their opinions and concerns. As a result of this hostility and negative perceptions, the professor and the students assume adversarial roles rather than being partners. How sad! Sending these negative suggestions is bound to sway the students’ performance and hinder the completion of their academic milestones. What suggestive actions could be performed by a professor in a classroom or outside to minimize the intensification of stress and negative feelings among students? There are multiple ways of generating positive suggestions but I would like to draw your attention to only a few examples.

 In a large class, it is not easy to interact with each student. However, once in a while, let us say the professor identifies a shy student and interacts with her while the rest of the class is watching them. Here the expectation of the professor is that the student comes out of the shell and engages with others unreservedly.  This indirect suggestion would make the student to loosen up and socialize with the rest of the class freely over a period of time. If I were the student, I would have felt a positive impetus because the professor recognized my presence and gave me importance. In this example, what is suggestive, therefore, is the professor occasionally interacting with the students and making them feel special [3].  This phenomenon is known as the Hawthorne effect [11] which says that if an individual is regarded as important in a group, it will lead to that person working harder and sticking to a task longer.  The fact that suggestions positively affect the students’ abilities sounds intriguing but there is now growing research evidence to corroborate it [3, 12].

 We frequently have to deal with students who are depressed about their academic performance. They continue to imagine that their academic performance is not going to become any better in spite of their best effort and conceal themselves in a spiral of depression. As their professor, it is certainly within our reach to use the power of suggestion to bring at least a few such students out of this “hopeless situation”.  There is mounting evidence which confirms the fact that “suggestion is a central factor in treating depression” [13]. When we interact with such students, if we are insensitive to their anxieties, we are bound to heighten their negative expectancies. Conversely, shouldn’t we try to bolster their self-worth and enhance their motivation to do well by suggesting to them realistic and non-hopeless alternate expectations?  This will result in a “realistic hopefulness” and could alleviate their distress [13,14].

 Individual differences in learning capabilities heighten the anxiety levels in students forcing them to retreat into a shell. They dedicate a significant amount of their intellectual resources in combating the intrusive negative thoughts and concerns [15]. This will, in turn, result in their underperformance leading to even dropping out of a course. Professors should “suggest” to the students that they are mindful of this by designing evaluation procedures that will test not only the fast-thinking high-performance students but also slow learners.

 The world we live in is ambiguous and indefinite.  We often disambiguate the world that surrounds us by forming expectations. Our performance outcomes and experiences are, therefore, controlled by two factors – the suggestions we receive from different sources and the expectations that are built around these suggestions [13]. As professors, we should take a lead in providing suggestions and helping students to form realistic expectations. Through the power of suggestion, if we could make the student understand that a realistic goal is more realizable, then the prospect of the student altering his approach to meet the expectation would be more. During our interactions with the students if we can convey the “suggestion” that they are matured and responsible individuals and that they are capable of doing well in their academic pursuits, it is bound to send a positive trigger enhancing their self-esteem. Playing this partnership role in assisting the students navigate through their learning process should be a natural ingredient of our discourse with the students.

 Is anyone listening?


 [1] P. P. Lemons and J. D. Lemons, “Questions for Assessing Higher-Order Cognitive Skills: It’s Not Just Bloom’s”, CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol.12, pp.47–58, 2013.

[2]  U. Zoller and G. Tsaparlis, “Higher and Lower-Order Cognitive Skills: The Case of Chemistry”, Research in Science Education, Vol.27(1), pp.117-130, 1997.

 [3] R. B. Michael, M. Garry and I. Kirsch, “Suggestion, Cognition, and Behavior”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol.21(3), pp.151–156, 2012.

 [4] B. Colagiuri, E. J. Livesey and J. A. Harris, “Can expectancies produce placebo effects for implicit learning?”, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Vol.18, pp.399–405, 2010.

 [5]  S. Parker, M. Garry, G. O. Einstein and M. A. McDaniel, “A sham drug improves a demanding prospective memory task”, Memory, Vol.19, pp.606–612, 2011.

 [6] M. A. Flaten, T. Simonsen and H. Olsen, “Drug-related information generates placebo and nocebo responses that modify the drug response”, Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol.61, pp.250–255, 1999.

 [7] M. McClung and D. Collins, “Because I know it will!”: Placebo effects of an ergogenic aid on athletic performance”, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Vol.29, pp.382–394, 2007.

 [8] I. Kirsch, “Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior”, American Psychologist, Vol.40, pp.1189–1202, 1985.

 [9] I. Kirsch, “Response expectancy theory and application: A decennial review”, Applied & Preventive Psychology, Vol.6, pp.69–79, 1997.

 [10] R. Land, G. Cousin, J. H. F. Meyer and P. Davies, “Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): Implications for course design and evaluation”, in C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning: Diversity and inclusivity, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp. 53–64, 2005.

 [11] J. G. Adair, “The Hawthorne effect: A reconsideration of the methodological artifact”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol.69, pp.334–345, 1984.

 [12] S. M. Jaeggi, M. Buschkuehl, J. Jonides and W. J. Perrig, “Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, Vol.105, pp.6829–6833, 2008.

 [13]. I. Kirsch and C. B. Low, “Suggestion in the Treatment of Depression”, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Vol. 55(3), pp.221-229, 2013.

 [14] M. D. Yapko, “Hypnosis in the treatment of depression: An overdue approach for encouraging skillful mood management”, International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol.58, pp.137–146, 2010.

 [15]  T. T. Brunyé, C. R. Mahoney, G. E. Giles, D. N. Rapp, H. A. Taylor and R. B. Kanarek, “Learning to relax: Evaluating four brief interventions for overcoming the negative emotions accompanying math anxiety”, Learning and Individual Differences, Vol.27, pp.1-7, 2013.


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16 Responses to How does the power of “suggestion” influence students’ performance?

  1. Kushal Shah says:

    After reading your article, I had the urge to look for some interesting quotes on teaching. I found many but the one which touched me most was “Teaching is not a lost art, but regard for teaching is a lost tradition” by Jacques Barzun. If all teachers truly realized the magnitude of transformation that they can bring about by taking their job seriously, this world would change in a very short time.

    Kushal Shah
    Assistant Professor, IIT Delhi

  2. Subrat Kar says:

    There is a lot of truth in what you have written. The power of a smile, a touch, a kind word from a teacher are often underestimated. Since 2007, I have reserved five hours every week in which I just talk to students – not necessarily about the courses they are doing with me, but about their aspirations and fears. I often declare my first law in my first class as ‘every student is a A grader’. Often, to my surprise, these conversations are a major part of the positive memories they retain over the years.

    Subrat Kar
    Professor, IIT Delhi

  3. Mr X says:

    -“We have a propensity to stereotype students by complaining that their underperformance is either because they are not smart enough or they are not spending enough time in their academic pursuits.”
    >>Since past two years in undergraduate classes here at IITD I have not have had a single class where once in a class the professor has not said “The quality of students has decreased nowdays”. I think its not fair for professors to judge student “quality” as a variable whose value has decreased. Its not a 1d variable, it lies on an n-dimensional plane!
    I remember reading on a blog of one of other professor whose class I once took saying that he used to be world class back then when students used to be smarter. Believe me for a student there can nothing more depressing and demotivating than this.

    -“The power of a smile, a touch, a kind word from a teacher are often underestimated.”-from Subrat Kar’s comment
    >> I think every researcher has a baggage of some awesome memories and moments from their student days because which their teachers gave them and which motivated them to choose the field they now work in. I bet you would be thinking of those moments if you are one of these. It’s responsibility of today generation of teachers that they ensure they help their student make a baggage for themselves.

  4. Grad student says:

    I fully support your arguments. Motivation and suggestion help to increase self belief in a student. Today there are many diametrically opposite forces that act on a newly graduated student, the necessity to prove himself in an increasingly insensitive environment, to learn and adapt to new challenges and knowledge daily and in the midst of all the uncertainty, to be focused , make future plans and execute them. This requires him/her to be comfortable in applying prior learning to unknown problems. The onus of imparting a hands on experience and a wide application view of the subject rests on the professor, so that each student gains a certain level of confidence. Encouraging questions from students and giving question breaks in the lecture is I believe an important step in this regard. As an increasing number of students with different educational backgrounds take the same lecture, a teacher must try to connect new knowledge with a student’s past learning. It is also necessary to give students a taste of open problems and recent applications of the subject to fuel their ideas and imagination. It has been frequently seen that a spirited discussion on an idea is the start that culminates in breakthrough discoveries or great products, years later. A classroom is an ideal place to provide a platform for open discussions to the students.

  5. Sunay Gupta says:

    I am a graduate from IIT Delhi and I completely agree with what you have written above. What others speak to us leaves a impact in our mind and that affects our performance. That is why, we have mentors allotted to freshers in IIT-D so that freshers are guided properly right from their initial stages in IIT. I had been a mentor too and I always discussed with the freshers on different perspectives of same situations and emphasised on balancing their viewpoints (i.e. never to get biased over something). Its my personal experience that a lot of seniors misguide freshers during their early days and that all makes the difference in their academic and social life. It affects their Attitude towards everything around them and this is something which may affect their career.

    Sunay Gupta

  6. Ashwini Agrawal says:

    A very insightful article. Though we may all know some of these facts, we
    often forget to implement them in our class teachings and other
    interactions with students. In particular, during BTP, MTP and PhD research
    presentations, many of us become very critical of the effort a student has
    put in his/her research. By doing so we may actually do more harm than good
    to the student, unintentionally.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts…
    Ashwini Agrawal
    Professor, IIT Delhi

  7. James Gomes says:

    As usual, you have given something to think about. Thanks,
    James Gomes
    Professor, IIT Delhi

  8. Savita Grover says:

    A well researched article. The points that are discussed are not based on some casual talking we do. The examples given are based on very recent research. While all of us know that we are affected by external factors, discussing this in the context of helping students is new to me. I think we need to discuss these issues more often among students and faculty so that we remain sensitized. Thank you sir.

  9. Samrat Mukhopadhyay says:

    I think the teacher has a much important role now, as the article highlights, in making everyone feel important and secure. In a large class we struggle to remember their names, something which I never enjoy – but at least individual interaction once in a while is absolutely necessary. Teaching is not only about information dissemination or logical derivations.. it has to have a strong human interaction component and a real compassionate approach towards every student.

    Samrat Mukhopadhyay
    Assistant Professor, IIT Delhi

  10. Richa Kumar says:

    Thank you for sharing this and other valuable insights from your blog (I loved the one on bicycling).
    Dr. Richa Kumar
    Assistant Professor, IIT Delhi

  11. V says:

    Dear Sir,
    First of all thank you very much for such a wonderful article, I am a research scholar in the same department. I would like to express my feelings freely. Sir, there is a lot of positive energy which can be grabbed from your article, the way you see, the prospect is having a vision hidden behind, which will enlighten many. But the same side, there are faculty who don’t care about this, who don’t believe in these type of things, who never discuss the issues, who will say on face, I am least bothered about your personals, neither encourage nor have a pleasant talk, inspite of all the work which is being done, and what ever they say, they will demotivate, defame, and conversations with such people end-up in uttermost discouragement, and restlessness. Why all faculty cant think like you sir, why they lack this type of positive energy? What suggestion and words would you like to give to such people. They will be so friendly, and conversations will be pleasing and until persons join under them, once after joining they start showing their cruelty, and all sorts of savageness, impatience, and full of negative energy, who lack the word of “good suggestion”, “touch”,”realistic hopefulness”, and all. What comments can you give with respect to these type of people? How to overcome the depressant situation?

  12. S P Singh says:

    Dear Jagadesh,
    A well researched article on an area we know but often forget, and neglect, and go in the same rut with our minds shut, and later regret. But, your article has cut the boundaries we had shut. In sharing this – Thanks for your gut.

    I also take note of the comments by Sunay Gupta, student, who tells that freshers are often misled by wrong guidance from seniors about the overall attitude towards studies and life in general.
    S. P. Singh
    Professor, IIT Delhi

  13. Apoorv Tyagi says:

    Thank you sir for giving me a ray of hope to survive at IIT Delhi. I always thought why professors can’t understand that you need not be a bore for teaching something in the class.

    IIT Delhi

  14. The following comment is from Melanie Reese Senn:

    I liked your article, and I appreciate that we are continents away and teaching different subjects and yet so interested in believing in and engaging our students, and, as you put it, subtly suggesting that they can learn….

    Ironically, many of my students are engineer majors, and I tell them that I don’t give much weight to the false dichotomy that you’re either good at math or good at writing….I “suggest” to them that some of my best writers are engineers–because they can hold the whole essay–all of its parts!–in their minds, and make it work. As far as feedback goes, I am trying to get my students to write their essays throughout the quarter without grades until the end. I give them frequent feedback and tell them that I will grade their essays whenever they want; the funny thing is that almost none want a grade until they end (and whether they want it then is up for debate). But throughout our 10-week quarter, they seem to just want to practice and learn and improve…
    Again, thanks for your comment. It’s interesting to communicate with other like-minded professors.

    I’m signed up for the “Tomorrow’s Professor” newsletter out of Stanford that comes to my email box every week. I love these–usually excerpts from books about student learning and pedagogy, etc. I’m not affiliated with them at all–just passing on good info. Here’s the blog that posts their emails. You can sign up from there if you like. Of all the stuff I get in my inbox every week, this is something I always read and almost always find valuable.

    Take care!
    Melanie Reese Senn

  15. Rahul Dangi says:

    Your article is really very nice ,and the positive point which i got from this is that, the feeling about the Professors which was there in me that the they dont understand the students ,is not present any more .You are the only teacher i have ever met who is that much concerned for our country ,really …

  16. Laraeb says:

    We are involved in a school project regarding the power of suggestion. We have looked over your study of this topic multiple times and have a inquiries we hope you can answer. We look forward to speaking to you and learning more about physcology.
    – L & I

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